Gordon Lewis, Jesus Saves. One of the reasons I love street photography is because you can never tell when you might turn a corner to discover a scene like this. I’d give anything to know what telephone numbers Jesus would have stored on his cellphone.
A Guest Post by Gordon Lewis
"Street" is, without question, one of photography’s most popular genres. Do a Google search on the phrase "street photography" and you'll get over 9.9 million hits—slightly more than travel photography, which gets 9.4 million. Landscape photography gets only 6.1 million. You’ll get similar results on Flickr: almost 3.3 million hits for street photography versus 1.8 million for travel and 1.3 million for landscape.
These numbers include not just individual photographs, but websites, blogs, portfolios, and YouTube videos.
I point this out not to diss other genres, but rather to give contemporary street photography its props, because regardless of how popular it is these days—or maybe because it’s so popular—it doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. I’ve seen it described as “hit-and-run” photography. Many photographers believe it’s rude, unethical, and unsavory to photograph people without their permission. And then there’s the common criticism that “It all looks the same—just random pictures of random people walking or standing around.”
I’ll concede there’s some merit to that one. A lot of the street photography being produced these days is one-dimensional and uninspired; but then so is most of today’s popular music, fiction, and films. There’s always going to be a smaller percentage of the really good stuff and the talent able to produce it.
That aside, the question at hand is why street photography is so popular these days. Certainly the rise of the digital age, with fully automated, instant feedback photography and the ability to publish to the web at will has had a lot to do with it. There’s also the fact most of the today’s photographers live in urban areas, with easy access to street life and culture. Equipment certainly isn’t a barrier to entry: All you need is a reasonably portable and fast camera and a lens in the wide-to-normal range and you’re good-to-go; no lights, studio, tripod, or other gear necessary. In short, street photography is relatively easy; which is one of the reasons why we see so much of it.
The reason why there are so few truly exceptional examples is because street photography is also quite challenging. First of all, it takes a lot of luck: You never know what you’ll find on any given day or if you’ll find anything at all. The light may be amazing or it may be awful. You may capture the shot of a lifetime or you may miss it by a fraction of a second. Someone can step in-between you and your subject, the subject can move or change expression...the camera can be off when you thought it was on….
It also takes skill: Even when you do release the shutter in time, you still have to be able to capture a well-composed, well-exposed image that’s in reasonably sharp focus. When luck and skill both fail you it can be enough to make you use words not found in holy texts.
Gordon Lewis, Man with Gun. Different day, different location, different scene. It seems like everyone on the street carries a cellphone these days. (And in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t get shot. He did.)
The final essential element unique to street photography is what Spanish speakers call cojones: You have to be willing to photograph people you don’t know, without their expressed permission, and with the possibility that your picture-taking may irritate or even infuriate them. This alone is why some photographers have no interest in street photography and would never even attempt it. I confess that even after more than 40 years of practice, I’m still nervous about being caught in the act of photographing someone. That doesn’t stop me though. With very rare exceptions, the worst that happens is that someone will shake their head or turn away. I never photograph anyone who has indicated they don’t want to be photographed or whom I believe I would be exploiting or embarrassing.
So again, why street photography? Because, when against all odds you do manage to capture an amazing image, there’s no better feeling. I’m sure that’s true no matter what type of photography you’re into.
Have I overlooked anything?
If you're a devoted street photographer, why do you do it?
Friend and regular contributor Gordon Lewis's newest book, Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment, from Rocky Nook, is in warehouses now and should begin shipping any day now.
TOP readers might know Gordon, a former screenwriter for TV sitcoms, from his blog Shutterfinger, or from his popular TOP Print Offer "Precipitation," or from his long career as a writer for many major photography magazines. He lives with his wife and a variety of younger Lewises in Philadelphia, which, not coincidentally, is a great city for street photography.
©2015 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
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